Sunday, September 6, 2015

Being the Best

Sunday morning.  Our second oldest is headed back to the airport after having spent the last four days with us.  I dive under my headphones to get something written, knowing that I will have limited time.  The little kids are all jammed in front of Alvin and the Chipmunks and the baby is asleep.  I am through with feeling guilty about putting the kids in front of the tube to get a little time to myself.  Selfish, one might think, and I used to agree, but I no longer care.  Not with 4 foster children all under the age of six, 4 biological children ages 14-28, three dogs - one of which is the size of a small horse - a very demanding career, and a loving marriage of almost 23 years that, regardless of what people might think after 23 years, does not run itself.  These things require time and care and energy and, most of all, love. 

And in order to have all that, you have to be willing to commit.  And make sacrifices.  
What I know at this age (44), and after this much time in public education - 19 years - is that sacrifice is a human endeavor that appears at first as loss.  In order to sacrifice something, really make a sacrifice, you must feel the loss; you must acknowledge that there is something missing from your daily routine.  For example, if you really care about being the best baseball player on the planet, you have to be willing to sacrifice certain things like Twinkies and double chocolate Oreo shakes.  You also have to be willing to add things into your daily routine, like cardio workouts and batting practice and taking 200 ground balls three times a day.  In order to make room for these things, to which you have committed in order to be the best on the planet, other things have to go.  

For me, the things that have had to go are plentiful.  I am not trying to be the best baseball player on the planet (although that would have been cool), but I am trying to be the best father, the best husband, the best foster daddy, the best middle school principal and role model for my school kiddos, the best leader for my teachers, and the best doctoral candidate on the planet.  These endeavors, I am convinced, are more difficult than trying to be the best baseball player on the planet.  The sacrifices made have come in the form of dancing in the kitchen when I know I should be working at my computer, being the consistent disciplinarian when I would much rather be having fun and laughing mistakes away, and letting go of the people in my life who can't - or won't - contribute goodness and usually only add problems and grief to my already overflowing plate. 

This is how I strive to become the best.  These are the sacrifices that, at one point in my life, would have caused me to say yes when I knew I should be saying no.  These are the things I have been wiling to give up - and some I've added - in order to be the best.  I don't have time for anything else in my quest.  Neither do you.  It starts with taking stock of everything going on in your life - all of the things and people to whom you are responsible - and asking yourself what the vision is.  Once the vision is established, it is time to make some commitments.  You will soon see what needs to be cut from, and added to, your daily routine.  Make the sacrifice to become the best whatever-it-is-you-want-to-be.   

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Improving from Within

Lesson Study Cycle
I spent the past week working with a motivated team of educators to understand how to help groups of 8th graders move from concrete to more abstract thinking.  It has shown me, once again, the power that a small group of people can have when they set their minds to it.

Japanese Lesson Study as a form of teacher professional development has the potential to change how educators view teaching and lesson planning, how they view what students take away from a given lesson, how students view a block of instructional time in the classroom - whether they are just enduring, or whether they are truly engaged and learning.  A few conditions have to be met and understood first, however, if Lesson Study is to truly make a difference and take hold in any school setting.  This post is not about what Japanese Lesson Study is, or how it works; you can certainly find much on the concept by doing a simple online search.  Rather, my purpose here is to document my thoughts on this intense form of professional development.

After spending the week planning, observing, debriefing, and reteaching with this team, it became clear to me that everyone really needed a break.  We ended the cycle on Friday, still needing to debrief the re-taught lesson, but agreed that it would just have to wait until Monday.  It had been an exhausting week.  Mentally taxing.  But some of the best PD we had ever been through.  

To be clear, this process is not a quick fix; better teaching and deeper understanding do not happen overnight.  Lesson Study is a process, the results of which can be powerful and lead to a thorough understanding of concepts over time.  For example, we were wondering why our 8th grade students have such a hard time thinking in abstract terms.  Is it developmental?  Are they even capable of thinking in the abstract, knowing what we know about natural learner characteristics of the adolescent student?  Through the intense process of Lesson Study - as the team developed the lesson, observed one of the teachers on the team deliver the lesson, debriefed, made changes, and then re-taught the lesson - we discovered that, through careful and deliberate questions, well-placed times for the teens to turn and talk to one another, the intentional use of visuals to aid in thinking, and plenty of built-in time for reflective thinking and writing, our teens are indeed capable of beginning to understand thinking in abstract terms.

In further posts on this topic, I will explore the topic of "soft starts" and how important it is for the teacher delivering the lesson to feel comfortable and able to put her own creative flair into the lesson (as we discovered after the initial teaching of the lesson).  In addition, I will write about how absolutely critical it is that district-level administrators provide support, even if it is only in their understanding that some time out of the classroom is necessary throughout this process (especially for the observation phase of the cycle), and that this time will give back ten-fold in the end.  Especially if increased teacher knowledge and instructional prowess is what we're after.  Teacher knowledge and skill, after all, do increase levels of student knowledge and achievement.  On this, I think we would all agree.